Monthly Archives: October 2020

Dreiser and Balzac

 

 

The mixture of philosophical digressions and speculation with narrative in the text is a notable feature of Sister Carrie. The philosophy may be lightweight, but I would say Dreiser does this well. I think he got it from Balzac, whose novels were a great early influence on Dreiser.

 

 

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Madame Vauquer, née de Conflans, is an old woman who for the past forty years has run a family boarding house in the rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève, between the Latin Quarter and the Faubourg Saint-Marceau. The boarding house, known as the Maison Vauquer, is open alike to men and women, young and old, but no breath of scandal has ever sullied the reputation of this respectable establishment. It is also true that for thirty years no young female person has ever been seen there, and any young man who stays there must be getting a very meagre allowance from his family. All the same, in 1819 when this drama begins an impoverished young woman was living there. However discredited the word ‘drama’ may have become through incorrect, strained and extravagant use in these days of harrowing literature, it must be employed here; not that this story is dramatic in the true sense of the word, but by the end of this work the reader will perhaps have shed a tear or two intra muros and extra. Will anyone understand it outside Paris? That is open to doubt. The special features of this scene, full of local colour and observations, can only be appreciated in the area lying between the heights of Montmartre and the hills of Montrouge, in that illustrious valley of flaking plasterwork and gutters black with mud; a valley full of suffering that is real, and of joy that is often false, where life is so hectic that it takes something quite extraordinary to produce feelings that last. One can however occasionally encounter sorrows to which the concentration of vice and virtue imparts a solemn grandeur. At such a sight egoism and self-interest are momentarily forgotten and give way to pity, but the impression lasts no longer than the taste of a fruit greedily swallowed. The chariot of civilization, like that of some juggernaut, may be briefly impeded when a heart less easily broken than most jams its wheels, but soon crushes it and rolls on in triumph. You will do likewise, holding this book in soft white hands, sinking into a comfortable armchair with the thought, ‘Perhaps I’ll enjoy this one.’ After reading about the secret misfortunes of Père Goriot, you will eat your dinner with relish, blaming the author for your insensibility, charging him with exaggeration, accusing him of poetic licence, but, let me tell you, this drama is not fiction or romance. All is true. So true that everyone can recognize its elements in his own circle, perhaps in his own heart.

The boarding house is the property of Madame Vauquer. It stands at the bottom of the rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève, just where the ground slopes down towards the rue de l’Arbalète so suddenly and steeply that horses rarely pass up or down. …

— Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot, Chapter I

 

 

When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money. It was in August, 1889. She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. Whatever touch of regret at parting characterised her thoughts, it was certainly not for advantages now being given up. A gush of tears at her mother’s farewell kiss, a touch in her throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home were irretrievably broken.

To be sure there was always the next station, where one might descend and return. There was the great city, bound more closely by these very trains which came up daily. Columbia City was not so very far away, even once she was in Chicago. What, pray, is a few hours–a few hundred miles? She looked at the little slip bearing her sister’s address and wondered. She gazed at the green landscape, now passing in swift review, until her swifter thoughts replaced its impression with vague conjectures of what Chicago might be.

When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms. Without a counsellor at hand to whisper cautious interpretations, what falsehoods may not these things breathe into the unguarded ear! Unrecognised for what they are, their beauty, like music, too often relaxes, then weakens, then perverts the simpler human perceptions.

Caroline, or Sister Carrie, as she had been half affectionately termed by the family, was possessed of a mind rudimentary in its power of observation and analysis. Self-interest with her was high, but not strong. It was, nevertheless, her guiding characteristic. Warm with the fancies of youth, pretty with the insipid prettiness of the formative period, possessed of a figure promising eventual shapeliness and an eye alight with certain native intelligence, she was a fair example of the middle American class–two generations removed from the emigrant. Books were beyond her interest–knowledge a sealed book. In the intuitive graces she was still crude. She could scarcely toss her head gracefully. Her hands were almost ineffectual. The feet, though small, were set flatly. And yet she was interested in her charms, quick to understand the keener pleasures of life, ambitious to gain in material things. A half-equipped little knight she was, venturing to reconnoitre the mysterious city and dreaming wild dreams of some vague, far-off supremacy, which should make it prey and subject–the proper penitent, grovelling at a woman’s slipper.

“That,” said a voice in her ear, “is one of the prettiest little resorts in Wisconsin.”

“Is it?” she answered nervously.

The train was just pulling out of Waukesha. …

— Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, Chapter I

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 2020